Sunday, January 25, 2009

An odd hatred

For some odd reason, Ron Rosenbaum unleashes a torrent of abuse at Billy Joel. I don't know why. Billy Joel was never a personal favorite of mine, but "schlock 'n' roll" seems unduly harsh.

Musically, he is versatile and clever, for example the Four Seasons send-up of "Uptown Girl" and the straight-out rock of "You May Be Right" are adequate rebuttals of the attempt of critics to pigeonhole him as a syrupy balladeer. The lyrics of "Only the Good Die Young" are extraordinarily well-crafted:

You got a nice white dress
And a party on your confirmation.
You got a brand new soul
And a cross of gold.
But Virginia they didn't give you
Quite enough information.
You didn't count on me
When you were counting on your rosary.
Perhaps it is the well-crafted quality of Joel's music -- and the high production values of the recordings -- that offends Rosenberg, who professes himself an admirer of Dylan and Springsteen.

It's the "authenticity" trip again, a marked tendency of certain intellectuals to prefer rock music that has such "street cred" trappings as hoarse vocals and a sloppy spontaneity. This is kind of like the marked preference of intellectuals in the 1950s and '60s for jazz that was bebop, rebop or otherwise avante-garde. You can go back and read ridiculously pretentious critics debating "hot" vs. "cool" jazz and so forth. The one thing they agreed on was their disdain for the smooth arrangements and pop sensibilities of classic Big Band jazz.

"Anything, so long as it's not popular" seems to be the critical theory of the intellectual class, and so Billy Joel is singled out for Rosenberg's wrath. I could think of a lot of acts from the '70s deserving more critical scorn -- REO Speedwagon, say, or Supertramp -- but those acts have not endured in popularity, with such a deep repertoire of hits, as has Billy Joel. Being the Gene Hackman of pop-rock doesn't win you any credibility with the critics.


  1. I note that Rosenbaum didn't pay any attention to Joel's classical pieces, but then hardly anyone did.

    (I did, but then I'm hardly anyone.)

  2. While the lyrics to "Only the Good Die Young" might be well-crafted, they are certainly viciously anti-Catholic. Joel wouldn't dream of saying such things about Jews or Muslims and even if he had the gonads, such a song would never have gotten any air play. I agree with my fellow "Lawn Guylander" Rosenbaum (Joel is from LI too) - Billy Joel does REO Speedwagon (just hearing Kevin Cronin is enough to make me plunge a pencil into my eye) and Supertramp. Great blog by the way...too bad about that name of yours though...

  3. The first problem with Billy Joel is really one of marketing and category. He's a Tin Pan alley, Pop guy, like Manilow. The intersection between Billy Joel and Rock is about nil. He seems to think he rocks, somehow. Even uses the phrase "Rock and Roll" in song titles that are not and have nothing to do with "Rock and Roll." Whatever the hell it is Mr Joel does for a living is not "Rock and Roll to Me."

    Rosenberg's rap that there's an ongoing level of snark and contempt for others in his lyrics is pretty damn solid. Billy Joel is better than the rest of us. You can tell by listening. It's almost an old David Letterman shtick set to music. No, not every song is like that. Too many are.

    I don't see how you can blame the snobbery of hating whatever is popular when Joel is compared critically to such huge selling performers as Springsteen and Dylan.

    Now there is no doubt that Billy Joel can write a song. The man is extremely skilled. But to my ear it plays like all those Andrew Lloyd Weber, Not-Rock show tunes. A very cynical, market-oriented, "how do we make this sound hip to people who would be frightened if they ever actually met hip" approach. Sure, it works. These guys sell tons of product. So do Pringles potato chips and they're terrible, too, and in much the same over-processed, simulacrum of the real thing sort of way.

    As a pop music entertainer, Billy Joel is obviously one of the best. As a Rock singer and writer, he just isn't. To borrow from your examples, REO is a Rock band. Yeah, they perpetrated a number of schlocky ballads, too. Even then they were a rock band doing schlocky ballads. Not schlocky balladeers pretending to rock.

    Joel ain't Gene Hackman. He's David Hasselhoff.

  4. Odd indeed. Plus Rosenbaum seems a bit too fixated with the lyrics, but there's two aspects in a song. Music counts too, doesn't it.

  5. This is College Radio Syndrome: what's cool is what nobody's ever heard of or ever listens to.

  6. "Anything, so long as it's not popular" seems to be the critical theory of the intellectual class...

    This seems to be a theme on this blog. People who don't share your tastes or opinions are not merely misguided, they're not even honest. They're putting on some sort of front to impress their friends among the intellectual elite.

    I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Queens. I manage a convenience store for a living. When I arrive there at 5 in the morning I don't feel like part of an intellectual elite. And yet somehow when I read Ronsenbaum's piece yesterday, I agreed with nearly every word. Billy Joel sucks. Sucks sucks sucks sucks sucks.

    Let me turn your attitude around on you. I think you're the phony. You're an intellectual who makes a living with words and ideas, who scribbles on a page for a living, but puts on a front of being just like an ordinary working American.

    PS: Billy Joel sucks. I'd rather have a root canal than Billy Joel tickets.

    ...the straight-out rock of "You May Be Right"

    No. Nothing Billy Joel does is any kind of rock. He sucks. Sucks.

    The Hairy Beast said... This is College Radio Syndrome: what's cool is what nobody's ever heard of or ever listens to.

    Yeah, I never heard of Springsteen and Dylan either. What are they, some sort of lesbian acoustic folk-rock duo?

  7. You're a fine writer and a brilliant thinker, Robert, but on the subject of music I'm afraid that, as Jeeves once said about his employer, Bertie, "mentally he is negligible, very negligible."

    Your opinion on an earlier musical item - that the theme song to Hawaii 5-0 was as cool as the theme song to Peter Gun - places you quite beyond the pale as a serious commenter on musical subjects.

    Billy Joel? Post-modern elevator music.

  8. I personally blame my poor transcripts on Billy Joel's:
    "Should I try to be a straight-A student?
    If you are, then you think too much."
    from It's Still Rock And Roll To Me.
    Seriously, bashing an artist in any medium begs the question: what have you done that's better?
    Warts and all, Billy Joel's catalogue will long outlive detractors'.
    I'll go out on a limb and say I hold him in higher esteem than Sinatra.

  9. @Thomas:
    viciously anti-Catholic?
    No, I'd say Bill Joel captured "hormonally over-driven teen" very well.
    There is plenty of room to take issue with the casual hedonism portrayed in the lyric, but I think you have to give artists a pass to craft characters without those characters espousing their internal views.
    If a Christian writer has a homosexual character in a story is that a sinful act on its own?
    I submit that the Catholic church should have lovingly laughed at Joel's strawman and pointed out the statistical consequences of the "hormone without a cause" ethos; pregnacies, poor long-term income prospects, diseases. Turning a piece of popular music into a crusade just shows the Church taking itself too seriously, and not the Church's Great Commission.

  10. Big mistake. You can't separate a songwriter's lyrics from his music and then dissect his words out of the original melodic/chordal/rhythmic context. Rosenbaum doesn't seem to get that. All of Joel's words are created within a MUSICAL idiomatic structure which defines their meaning as much as language itself. That's why they're called LYRICS. -not prose, not poetry. Obviously another English Lit major who received a B.A. in Liberal Arts at the University of Uselessness.. Bloody philistines.